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His focus stays on innovation

Robert Bechtold pulls up a seat at a conference table at Harbec Inc., the plastics company with the enormous wind turbines on Route 104, just past the Webster town line in Ontario, Wayne County.

He recently has returned from the International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago where his company gave a presentation on an injection mold design inspired by plant leaves, created with the help of university scientists.

American manufacturers need to innovate to compete globally, Bechtold says.

“The day we lose that vision, that we have to constantly keep reinventing ourselves, is the day that begins our end,” Bechtold says. “When we lose that spark, that insatiable drive to figure it out—and then figure out what it is that we have to figure out—then that will be the end.”

Harbec, which began in 1977 as a one-man tool-making business in Bechtold’s garage in Webster, employs roughly 140 people and has annual revenue of more than $24 million. It serves aerospace, medical, automotive and consumer products companies in 16 countries.

Bechtold, 68, is still eager to take the company in new directions, to grow and to stay ahead of the competition.

On this day he has just held a meeting about “the toolmaker of the future,” which is his vision for training across specialties that will give Harbec its next competitive edge.

Innovation comes easily, Bechtold says.

“The most frustrating part for me certainly has been convincing people, even my own employees, to do it,” he says. “I always try to get buy-in, because it’s so much easier if people are with you instead of fighting you, but in the end if I had to, I’d say, ‘It’s my decision, and my responsibility if I’m making a mistake. Write the purchase order,’ or whatever it was.”

Bechtold has had to do a lot of convincing over the years.

His first business loan was for a computer numerical control machine to put in his barn.

“Nobody put a CNC machine in a barn,” he says.

One of the conditions for convincing the bank to give him the loan was to get a Small Business Administration guarantee, which required a visit from a volunteer with SBA’s Service Corps of Retired Executives program.

Key moment
That turned out to be a pivotal moment for the business.

Retired Eastman Kodak Co. executive William Feldman taught him the most valuable business lesson he ever learned: Let go and trust your employees.

At that point, in the mid-1980s, Bechtold employed roughly a half-dozen people in his barn. Every night after they went home he would go around the shop and fix their work, he says.

“A toolmaker is so focused,” Bechtold says. “Your work is yourself. It’s your statement. The better it is, the better you are. And now I’m supposed to trust somebody else to do it?”

As Feldman’s lesson slowly sank in, Bechtold learned to stop fixing everything himself and instead implement systems to catch mistakes. He was able to hire more workers and the business expanded quickly.

Harbec moved to its current location in 1987 with 25 employees.

In the 1980s the company got involved in plastics. To distinguish itself from competitors, Bechtold decided to tackle the most difficult, high-risk types of molding.

He continued to be an early adopter of technology over the years. Harbec bought its first 3-D printer in 1995.

“Nobody even knew what that is,” Bechtold says. “When I tell people, nobody ever believes us, but that’s how long we’ve been in it.”

For Bechtold, 3-D printing plastic is old news. Harbec now has equipment that will 3-D print hardened steel.

“Bob purchased, I believe it was, the second machine in the U.S.,” says Keith Schneider, Harbec’s general manager. “The other one went to … one of the big aerospace companies, and then the second machine came to little Harbec.”

“He purchased it without any real customer base or even a business plan for it,” Schneider adds. “He just knew it was a great technology, and once we learned it and we figured out how it works and where it fits, that we’d be able to sell it.”

Metal printing is now one of the fastest-growing segments of the business, Schneider says.

“It took a lot of years to get there,” Schneider says, “but the fact that we were involved in it early on, we have a lot of knowledge that our competitors don’t.”

Harbec uses 3-D metal printing to make curved cooling channels in its molds, an improvement over straight channels created by drilling. The curved channels get water closer to the plastic to cool it faster, and cooling is the most time-consuming step in injection molding.

“Now we’ve gone one step beyond that and added nature,” Bechtold says.

Tapping nature
In a project with the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority, Bechtold met with two professors, one from Cornell University and one from Rochester Institute of Technology, who are experts in biomimicry.

He told them about mold cooling and why it is important. The professors talked about cooling systems in nature, such as elephant’s ears and termite mounds.

Ultimately, they settled on a design based on plant leaves. Harbec’s new 3-D-printed cooling channels are modeled on the vein structure of a leaf.

“The culmination was, we reduced the mold cycle times,” Bechtold says. “So we were able to make the part 20 percent faster, or with 20 percent less cooling time required, because we did it so much better.”

Michael Mandina, president of Optimax Systems Inc., which Bechtold co-founded, says Bechtold is a creative dreamer.

“Not everything he’s tried has worked out, but he continues to try, and he certainly has an excellent track record of things actually working out,” Mandina says.

Bechtold constantly is innovating when it comes to powering his buildings with alternative energy. He got such push-back from banks when he tried to finance his first alternative energy project, his bank broker quit after 30-some banks as far away as Ohio turned it down, that he decided never, ever to make a pitch based on something being good for the environment.

He rephrased his argument completely, mentioning only the economic benefits, and took it back to the same banks. His own local bank gave him the money.

Sixty percent of Harbec’s power now comes from its two wind turbines, 20 percent from green power bought from the grid and 20 percent from Harbec’s combined heat and power plant.

Harbec also collects rainwater from its roof and ponds, with a goal of eventually using municipally processed water only for hand-washing and drinking.

Sustainability has become a major differentiator for Harbec, he says, and also a cost savings.

Bechtold’s interest in alternative energy began as a fascination with the technology when he was a teen reading about wind turbines in Popular Mechanics magazine. His concern for the environment came later, as a byproduct, he says.

His next project will be building two 270-kilowatt solar arrays, one to sell as subscriptions to some 30 households through the grid and the second dedicated to Harbec employees as an unusual new benefit.

“If you work here you will have the opportunity to buy power for less than you can buy from the utility,” Bechtold says.

Bechtold shares his experience in alternative energy every chance he gets, whether by writing white papers with NYSERDA or visiting third-grade classrooms.

He also talks to students and teachers about careers in applied engineering and advanced manufacturing.

“Bob’s one of those guys that’s really been very instrumental in keeping that alive, making sure we’ve got the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs coming up,” Mandina says.

Bechtold has eight grandchildren, all living within bicycle distance of his farmhouse in Webster. He sees them every week.

Even when he is not at work, Bechtold enjoys tinkering with new technology. For years he flew ultralight aircraft, until he crashed one and did not make the repairs. Rather than flying in person, he now prefers to experience flight vicariously by flying drones.

It would make a good retirement hobby, but Bechtold is not ready to retire. Harbec is more than a year into the succession plan he created to ensure that ownership will pass to three key employees after he is gone, but in the meantime he is still deeply involved in the business.

“I don’t know if he could ever retire,” Schneider says. “I don’t know if we’d ever let him.”

Julie Kirkwood is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Robert Bechtold
Title: President, Harbec Inc.
Age: 68
Education: Rochester Institute of Technology: B.A. in fine arts, 1981; M.S. in technology, 1983
Family: Wife, Jean; four adult children, Tim, Kate, Amy and Heidi; eight grandchildren
Residence: Webster
Hobbies: Flying drones, spending time with his grandchildren
Quote: “The most frustrating part for me certainly has been convincing people, even my own employees, to do it.”

10/7/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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